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IN THE SUNNY SOUTH
It was the cottage of a New York millionaire which had fallen to Brewster. The owner had, for the time, preferred Italy to St. Augustine, and left his estate, which was well located and lavishly equipped, in the hands of his friends. Brewster's lease covered three months, at a fabulous rate per month. With Joe Bragdon installed as manager-in-chief, his establishment was transferred bodily from New York, and the rooms were soon as comfortable as their grandeur would permit. Brewster was not allowed to take advantage of his horses and the new automobile which preceded him from New York, but to his guests they offered unlimited opportunities. "Nopper" Harrison had remained in the north to renew arrangements for the now hated ball and to look after the advance details of the yacht cruise. Dr. Lotless and his sister, with "Subway" Smith and the Grays, made up Brewster's party. Lotless dampened Monty's spirits by relentlessly putting him on rigid diet, with most discouraging restrictions upon his conduct. The period of convalescence was to be an exceedingly trying one for the invalid. At first he was kept in-doors, and the hours were whiled away by playing cards. But Monty considered "bridge" the "pons asinorum," and preferred to play piquet with Peggy. It was one of these games that the girl interrupted with a question that had troubled her for many days. "Monty," she said, and she found it much more difficult than when she had rehearsed the scene in the silence of her walks; "I've heard a rumor that Miss Drew and her mother have taken rooms at the hotel. Wouldn't it be pleasanter to have them here?"
A heavy gloom settled upon Brewster's face, and the girl's heart dropped like lead. She had puzzled over the estrangement, and wondered if by any effort of her own things could be set right. At times she had had flashing hopes that it did not mean as much to Monty as she had thought. But down underneath, the fear that he was unhappy seemed the only certain thing in life. She felt that she must make sure. And together with the very human desire to know the worst, was the puritanical impulse to bring it about.
"You forget that this is the last place they would care to invade." And in Brewster's face Peggy seemed to read that for her martyrdom was the only wear. Bravely she put it on.
"Monty, I forget nothing that I really know. But this is a case in which you are quite wrong. Where is your sporting blood? You have never fought a losing fight before, and you can't do it now. You have lost your nerve, Monty. Don't you see that this is the time for an aggressive campaign?" Somehow she was not saying things at all as she had planned to say them. And his gloom weighed heavily upon her. "You don't mind, do you, Monty," she added, more softly, "this sort of thing from me? I know I ought not to interfere, but I've known you so long. And I hate to see things twisted by a very little mistake."
But Monty did mind enormously. He had no desire to talk about the thing anyway, and Peggy's anxiety to marry him off seemed a bit unnecessary. Manifestly her own interest in him was of the coldest. From out of the gloom he looked at her somewhat sullenly. For the moment she was thinking only of his pain, and her face said nothing.
"Peggy," he exclaimed, finally, resenting the necessity of answering her, "you don't in the least know what you are talking about. It is not a fit of anger on Barbara Drew's part. It is a serious conviction."
"A conviction which can be changed," the girl broke in.
"Not at all." Brewster took it up. "She has no faith in me. She thinks I'm an ass."
"Perhaps she's right," she exclaimed, a little hot. "Perhaps you have never discovered that girls say many things to hide their emotions. Perhaps you don't realize what feverish, exclamatory, foolish things girls are. They don't know how to be honest with the men they love, and they wouldn't if they did. You are little short of an idiot, Monty Brewster, if you believed the things she said rather than the things she looked."
And Peggy, fiery and determined and defiantly unhappy, threw down her cards and escaped so that she might not prove herself tearfully feminine. She left Brewster still heavily enveloped in melancholy; but she left him puzzled. He began to wonder if Barbara Drew did have something in the back of her mind. Then he found his thoughts wandering off toward Peggy and her defiance. He had only twice before seen her in that mood, and he liked it. He remembered how she had lost her temper once when she was fifteen, and hated a girl he admired. Suddenly he laughed aloud at the thought of the fierce little picture she had made, and the gloom, which had been so sedulously cultivated, was dissipated in a moment. The laugh surprised the man who brought in some letters. One of them was from "Nopper" Harrison, and gave him all the private news. The ball was to be given at mid-Lent, which arrived toward the end of March, and negotiations were well under way for the chartering of the "Flitter," the steam-yacht belonging to Reginald Brown, late of Brown & Brown.
The letter made Brewster chafe under the bonds of inaction. His affairs were getting into a discouraging state. The illness was certain to entail a loss of more than $50,000 to his business. His only consolation came through Harrison's synopsis of the reports from Gardner, who was managing the brief American tour of the Viennese orchestra. Quarrels and dissensions were becoming every-day embarrassments, and the venture was an utter failure from a financial point of view. Broken contracts and lawsuits were turning the tour into one continuous round of losses, and poor Gardner was on the point of despair. From the beginning, apparently, the concerts had been marked for disaster. Public indifference had aroused the scorn of the irascible members of the orchestra, and there was imminent danger of a collapse in the organization. Gardner lived in constant fear that his troop of quarrelsome Hungarians would finish their tour suddenly in a pitched battle with daggers and steins. Brewster smiled at the thought of the practical Gardner trying to smooth down the electric emotions of these musicians.
A few days later Mrs. Prentiss Drew and Miss Drew registered at the Ponce de Leon, and there was much speculation upon the chances for a reconciliation. Monty, however, maintained a strict silence on the subject, and refused to satisfy the curiosity of his friends. Mrs. Drew had brought down a small crowd, including two pretty Kentucky girls and a young Chicago millionaire. She lived well and sensibly, and with none of the extravagance that characterized the cottage. Yet it was inevitable that Brewster's guests should see hers and join some of their riding parties. Monty pleaded that he was not well enough to be in these excursions, but neither he nor Barbara cared to over-emphasize their estrangement.
Peggy Gray was in despair over Monty's attitude. She had become convinced that behind his pride he was cherishing a secret longing for Barbara. Yet she could not see how the walls were to be broken down if he maintained this icy reserve. She was sure that the masterful tone was the one to win with a girl like that, but evidently Monty would not accept advice. That he was mistaken about Barbara's feeling she did not doubt for a moment, and she saw things going hopelessly wrong for want of a word. There were times when she let herself dream of possibilities, but they always ended by seeming too impossible. She cared too much to make the attainment of her vision seem simple. She cared too much to be sure of anything.
At moments she fancied that she might say a word to Miss Drew which would straighten things out. But there was something about her which held her off. Even now that they were thrown together more or less she could not get beyond a certain barrier. It was not until a sunny day when she had accepted Barbara's invitation to drive that things seemed to go more easily. For the first time she felt the charm of the girl, and for the first time Barbara seemed unreservedly friendly. It was a quiet drive they were taking through the woods and out along the beach, and somehow in the open air things simplified themselves. Finally, in the softness and the idle warmth, even an allusion to Monty, whose name usually meant an embarrassing change of subject, began to seem possible. It was inevitable that Peggy should bring it in; for with her a question of tact was never allowed to dominate when things of moment were at stake. She cowered before the plunge, but she took it unafraid.
"The doctor says Monty may go out driving tomorrow," she began. "Isn't that fine?"
Barbara's only response was to touch her pony a little too sharply with the whip. Peggy went on as if unconscious of the challenge.
"He has been bored to death, poor fellow, in the house all this time, and — "
"Miss Gray, please do not mention Mr. Brewster's name to me again," interrupted Barbara, with a contraction of the eyebrows. But Peggy was seized with a spirit of defiance and plunged recklessly on.
"What is the use, Miss Drew, of taking an attitude like that? I know the situation pretty well, and I can't believe that either Monty or you has lost in a week a feeling that was so deep-seated. I know Monty much too well to think that he would change so easily." Peggy still lived largely in her ideals. "And you are too fine a thing not to have suffered under this misunderstanding. It seems as if a very small word would set you both straight."
Barbara drew herself up and kept her eyes on the road which lay white and gleaming in the sun. "I have not the least desire to be set straight." And she was never more serious.
"But it was only a few weeks ago that you were engaged."
"I am sorry," answered Barbara, "that it should have been talked about so much. Mr. Brewster did ask me to marry him, but I never accepted. In fact, it was only his persistence that made me consider the matter at all. I did think about it. I confess that I rather liked him. But it was not long before I found him out."
"What do you mean?" And there was a flash in Peggy's eyes. "What has he done?"
"To my certain knowledge he has spent more than four hundred thousand dollars since last September. That is something, is it not?" Miss Drew said, in her slow, cool voice, and even Peggy's loyalty admitted some justification in the criticism.
"Generosity has ceased to be a virtue then?" she asked coldly.
"Generosity!" exclaimed Barbara, sharply. "It's sheer idiocy. Haven't you heard the things people are saying? They are calling him a fool, and in the clubs they are betting that he will be a pauper within a year."
"Yet they charitably help him to spend his money. And I have noticed that even worldly mammas find him eligible." The comment was not without its caustic side.
"That was months ago, my dear," protested Barbara, calmly. "When he spoke to me — he told me it would be impossible for him to marry within a year. And don't you see that a year may make him an abject beggar?"
"Naturally anything is preferable to a beggar," came in Peggy's clear, soft voice.
Barbara hesitated only a moment.
"Well, you must admit, Miss Gray, that it shows a shameful lack of character. How could any girl be happy with a man like that? And, after all, one must look out for one's own fate."
"Undoubtedly," replied Peggy, but many thoughts were dashing through her brain.
"Shall we turn back to the cottage?" she said, after an awkward silence.
"You certainly don't approve of Mr. Brewster's conduct?" Barbara did not like to be placed in the wrong, and felt that she must endeavor to justify herself. "He is the most reckless of spendthrifts, we know, and he probably indulges in even less respectable excitement."
Peggy was not tall, but she carried her head at this moment as though she were in the habit of looking down on the world.
"Aren't you going a little too far, Miss Drew?" she asked placidly.
"It is not only New York that laughs over his Quixotic transactions," Barbara persisted. "Mr. Hampton, our guest from Chicago, says the stories are worse out there than they are in the east."
"It is a pity that Monty's illness should have made him so weak," said Peggy quietly, as they turned in through the great iron gates, and Barbara was not slow to see the point.